Courtesy of Beaverdale Books
Reviewed by Catherine Rihm
By Kevin Fenton
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Minnesota author Kevin Fenton’s intelligent book offers a unique style, superbly built characters, and a refreshing dose of humor. Fenton’s debut novel follows four friends through life from junior high into middle-aged adults. Each of these four strong voices narrates the book, with the narrator changing each chapter. Each chapter has a title that is the name of a Boy Scout merit badge and its requirements; this wittily sets the scene for the tender story to follow.
The friends meet as teens in the small town of Minnisapa, Minn., as they wade their way through junior high. Their characters are so expertly developed that if you don’t recognize yourself in one of them, they’ll easily call to mind someone that they remind you of. Slow is a teenage father figure, smart and responsible; he watches over everyone else. Quint dives into self-destructive rebellion after he learns of his father’s death, turns to drugs and drinking and inevitably meets up with the law. Chimes is the mainstay — laid back, fairly untroubled, steady — and he grounds the others. Barb simultaneously vies to be one of the boys while bucking against them; she gets out of the town to escape it yet soon hustles right back to its security.
A masterful blend of the funniness and the type of gut-wrenching pain that can crop up as you make your way through life, “Merit Badges” shows that as hard as it was for the four to get through life in Minnisapa, it just may be the best place for them still. CV